Former President Donald Trump took more than 700 pages of classified documents, including some related to the nation’s most covert intelligence operations, to his private club and residence in Florida when he left the White House in January 2021, according to a letter that the National Archives sent to his lawyers this year.
The letter, dated May 10 and written by the acting U.S. archivist, Debra Steidel Wall, to one of Trump’s lawyers, Evan Corcoran, described the state of alarm in the Justice Department as officials there began to realize how serious the documents were.
It also suggested that top department prosecutors and members of the intelligence community were delayed in conducting a damage assessment about the documents’ removal from the White House as Trump’s lawyers tried to argue that some of them might have been protected by executive privilege.
The letter was disclosed Monday night by one of Trump’s allies in the media, John Solomon, who also serves as one of the former president’s representatives to the archives. The archives then released the letter Tuesday.
The New York Times reported Monday that investigators had recovered more than 300 documents with classified markings from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home and private club, with each document potentially comprising multiple pages.
The letter from the archives was made public shortly after Trump’s lawyers filed a legal motion on Monday asking a federal judge in Florida to appoint an independent arbiter, known as a special master, to weed out any documents protected by executive privilege from a trove that was removed during an FBI search of Mar-a-Lago on Aug. 8.
The motion, filed in U.S. District Court in Southern Florida, came as a different federal judge was deciding how much — if any — of the underlying affidavit used to justify the search warrant should be publicly released.
Solomon, appearing Tuesday on a podcast run by Steve Bannon, Trump’s former White House aide, tried to suggest that Wall’s letter somehow implicated President Joe Biden in the struggle over the classified documents. At one point in the letter, Wall told Corcoran that Biden had agreed with her and others that Trump’s attempts to assert executive privilege over the materials were baseless.
But the letter never indicated that Biden was in charge of the decision rejecting Trump’s claims of privilege or that he had anything to do with the search of Mar-a-Lago, as Solomon suggested.
In fact, the letter could further implicate Trump in a potential crime. It confirmed, for instance, that the former president had kept at Mar-a-Lago documents related to Special Access Programs, some of the nation’s most closely held secrets, before the FBI searched the property.
The Times had previously reported that the investigation stemmed in part from an effort to recover documents related to special access programs, a designation that is typically reserved for extremely sensitive operations carried out by the United States abroad or for closely held technologies and capabilities.
The search was more broadly part of an inquiry into whether the former president had willfully retained highly sensitive national defense papers and obstructed a federal investigation.
The letter also deepened the understanding of the back-and-forth between the archives and Trump’s lawyers over how to handle retrieving the papers.
It described how archives officials had “ongoing communications” with Trump’s representatives last year about presidential records that were missing from their files. Those communications, Wall wrote, resulted in the archives retrieving 15 boxes of materials in January, some of them containing highly classified information marked top secret and others that were related to Special Access Programs.
But even after the archives retrieved the records, the letter said, Trump’s lawyers, in consultation with the White House Counsel’s Office, asked for time to determine whether — and how many of — the documents were protected by executive privilege, leading to negotiations that delayed the FBI, the Justice Department and the intelligence community from assessing the materials.
Those negotiations continued through April, even as Wall alerted Trump’s lawyers about the “urgency” of the agencies’ request to see the documents, which touched on “important national security interests,” the letter said. Wall ultimately rejected Trump’s claims of executive privilege after consulting with a top Justice Department official — a decision to which Biden deferred. As Wall wrote to Corcoran, before alerting him in May that the archives would soon hand the documents to the FBI, “The question in this case is not a close one.
“The executive branch here is seeking access to records belonging to, and in the custody of, the federal government itself,” Wall wrote, “not only in order to investigate whether those records were handled in an unlawful manner but also, as the national security division explained, to ‘conduct an assessment of the potential damage resulting from the apparent manner in which these materials were stored and transported.’”
In an email dated April 12 that was reviewed by The New York Times, officials at the archives alerted two of Trump’s archive representatives, Patrick F. Philbin and John Eisenberg, that the FBI would start reviewing the original 15 boxes that Trump had let the archives recover in January. The request to look at the material was made through the Biden White House, “on behalf of the Department of Justice and the FBI,” according to the email. The existence of the email was reported earlier by The Washington Post.
That set off an effort by Trump’s aides to find someone with an appropriate security clearance, given the sensitivity of the material that the email warned was in the boxes. Neither Philbin nor Eisenberg wanted to be involved, according to a person briefed on the matter. A handful of other people were contacted, but they did not want to either. So Corcoran, a newly hired lawyer, suddenly appeared.
Aspects of this new timeline, revealed by Wall’s letter and the email, further undermine the repeated assertions from Trump’s legal team that federal officials could have simply asked for the material at any time and that the matter was just an amiable ongoing negotiation.
Solomon’s decision to release the letter did more than confirm that Trump had kept some of the country’s most highly guarded secrets in his relatively unsecured beachfront club in Florida. It also revealed that well before Trump’s lawyers argued in their court filing Monday that many of the records were protected by executive privilege, the same argument had been rejected by the White House and a top official at the Justice Department.
The court filing also appeared at times to make arguments that could ultimately harm Trump.
One long section of the motion — “President Donald J. Trump’s Voluntary Assistance” — was devoted to portraying him as having fully cooperated with the archives and the Justice Department from the outset. But read in a slightly different manner, the facts laid out in the section could be construed as evidence that Trump had instead obstructed the investigation into the documents.
The section noted how he willingly returned the first batch of 15 boxes to the archives then — one day after Walls’ letter was sent to Corcoran — “accepted service of a grand jury subpoena” seeking to reclaim more documents with “classification markings.”
It also described how even after a top national security prosecutor went to Mar-a-Lago to retrieve the papers sought by the subpoena, the Justice Department felt compelled to issue a second subpoena. That was for surveillance camera footage at the property, suggesting that prosecutors were concerned that Trump and his lawyers had not been entirely forthcoming.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.